For half the concert on Thursday, it seemed like Red Rocks was in for a normal Primus set (which by most people’s standards is far from normal). After a set of classic Primus songs from the band (which did include a pig’s mask), the mountain amphitheater was transformed for the final stop in the “Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble,” their cover album (released last fall) of the soundtrack to the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Then things got really weird — even for Primus.
But first, the trio of singer, frontman and iconic bass player Les Claypool; guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde; and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander took to the stage with a set of nine, mostly older songs to appease those fans who may not be into the whole Willy Wonka thing. The band opened with “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers” from “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” (released almost 24 years ago to the day) and “Last Salmon Man” from 2011’s “Green Naugahyde,” the band’s last studio album of original material.
“I played here many times and it still blows my mind. … There’s like a wall of human beings in front of me,” Claypool said before playing “Groundhog’s Day.”
Earlier in the evening it was drizzling a little, but just before Primus played “Jilly’s On Smack,” it really started raining and people pulled on their ponchos. Claypool then donned a pig mask and played his upright six-string bass with a bow, signaling the signature opening sounds of “Mr. Krinkle.” The band kept the momentum going with “The Toys Go Winding Down” from “Frizzle Fry,” the band’s first studio album, and “My Name Is Mud” from “Pork Soda.”
“I know Colorado is down with that fat-ass weed,” Claypool said before the last song of the first set. He asked the audience if they would prefer an “up number” or a “spacey number.” Up clearly won out as the band chose to play fan-favorite “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver.”
During a half-hour break, the stage was festooned with giant, inflatable magic mushrooms and other Willy Wonka scenery. Primus returned to the stage with two additional musicians, dubbed the Fungi Ensemble. One played cello and the other played marimbas and vibraphone.
The band launched right into the “Chocolate Factory” album, which includes the band’s unique twist on classic songs like “Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination” and “I Want It All.” And, of course, all the Oompa Loompa songs, which in the movie were sung to chastise greedy and otherwise despicable children, Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt and Mike Teevee. Two giant-headed Oompa Loompas came out on stage and danced during these numbers. All throughout the performance, there was a screen above the band that displayed scenes from the original movie, edited and distorted to fit the timing and mood of the performances. Somehow, Primus managed to make their version of the trippy boat ride across the chocolate river even more nightmarish than in the film. At the merch tables, one could buy scrumdiddlyumptious chocolate bars bearing names of characters from Primus songs: Mr. Krinkle Bars, Professor Nutbutter Bars and Bastard Bars. At $10 apiece, these were souvenirs that Charlie and Grandpa Joe would no doubt have to forgo.
After the “Chocolate Factory” set, the band paused for just a few minutes before returning for an encore of three songs, including the anti-war song “Too Many Puppies.” At some point in the evening the rain died down again, but it started coming down hard during a super-spacey, 10-minute version of “Southbound Pachyderm” from 1995’s “Tales from the Punchbowl,” a definite highlight of the night.
“This is a hell of a place to end the tour,” Claypool said after the epic jam. “You people are champions because you weathered the storm. So thanks for coming down.”